Posted: April 4, 2013 at 8:09 pm

By Shelby Toompas, Michael Stahurski, Brooke Burton

For Louisa Gates, the best part of owning a monogramming shop in Bridgeport was providing the traditional quilt squares for contestants in the Miss West Virginia pageant.  The squares, which depict a unique characteristic of each contestant, are sewn into a quilt that symbolizes each year’s contest.

As part of her work, Gates took her youngest daughter, Kaitlin, with her to sit in on rehearsals and meet the girls who were going to be competing for the title of Miss West Virginia. The more Kaitlin watched, the more she fell in love with the pageant world.

At the age of 13, Kaitlin participated in her first pageant, a Sunburst Pageant, at the Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport.

Seven years later, she was crowned Miss West Virginia in 2012. She now travels around the state visiting schools and teaching kids about the value of eating healthy, encouraging them to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food.

“I’ve gained even more friends, interview skills, and have received so many business cards from individuals who will hopefully be able to help me later in life,” says Gates. “I think there are so many benefits to competing in pageants.”The award money from multiple pageants has essentially paid for her schooling at West Virginia University.

While Gates says pageantry has opened up many new opportunities for her, some say too many parents in West Virginia push their daughters into pageants at too young an age, over-emphasizing the value of physical beauty and giving them the wrong idea about what they can accomplish as women.

Currently, there are approximately 300 pageants every year in the state of West Virginia alone. About 2.5 million girls compete in pageants annually in the United States, but such competition comes at a cost. For instance, approximately six percent of these girls suffer from depression, as well as eating disorders and low self-esteem. Even Miss America 2008 is recovering from anorexia as a teen, according to, a website covering many topics on social issues.

Taylor Eaton strikes a pose with other contestants at the Parkersburg Homecoming festival. The youngest child in the pageant was six.

Taylor Eaton strikes a pose with other contestants at the Parkersburg Homecoming festival. The youngest child in the pageant was six.

“What pageants are stressing is the physical component, not the intellectual or talent component,” says Daniel Brewster, a professor of sociology at West Virginia University.

Brewster says that many children in West Virginia and other states are being pushed into pageants at too young an age, some as young as a few months old.  Children may not really want to participate but at such young ages, they are not able to really think for themselves and make their own decisions.

“You win a crown and want to go to McDonalds for chicken nuggets, but [your parents say] no you can’t go,” Brewster says. “You need to tan, you need to use your teeth whitener.”

Kearsten Williams, a 17-year-old pageant contestant from Clarksburg, W.Va., agrees that some parents pressure their kids into participating in pageants for the wrong reasons. She notes that a lot of small West Virginia pageants attract competitors who can’t really afford to spend the money to enter the pageants and buy the required dresses. And some parents turn around and use any price money they win to buy yet another dress for an upcoming pageant, instead of saving for their child’s education, she says.

“The parents want the spotlight, and their kids in the spotlight, even though it is mainly for themselves,” Williams says. “They  threaten [the kids], bribe them with something, or just give them a bunch of sugar.” Williams says her mother talked her into attending the St. Patricks Day pageant at Lakeview Resort in Morgantown in March.

A mother assists her crying daughter onto the stage at the St. Patricks Day pageant at Lakeview Resort and Spa in Morgantown W. Va.

A mother assists her crying daughter onto the stage at the St. Patrick’s Day pageant at Lakeview Resort and Spa in Morgantown.

Entry fees for small pageants in West Virginia typically cost $150 and the crowning ceremony usually cost $25.  This  doesn’t include the cost of the dress, shoes or makeup.

“The cheapest glitz dress I’ve seen costs $600,” said Williams. “And as you get older, it gets more expensive.”

However, many successful beauty contestants says that participating in pageants has given them self-confidence and important life skills.

“Pageants have helped me grow as a person and given me life skills that I’ll be able to use in the future,” says Taylor Eaton, another WVU student who has won many beauty pageants and currently holds the title of Miss West Virginia Timber and Wood 2011 Queen. “I think they have really made a positive impact on my life.”

At the same time, many successful contestants agree that it’s important for parents not to pressure their daughters into pageantry.

“My parents wanted to make sure I was old enough to make the decision for myself, so I started in pageants when I was older,” says Gates, who entered her first pageant when she was 13. After she hands over her Miss West Virginia crown to the 2013 winner in July, she plans to return to WVU in the fall of 2013 and continue studying exercise physiology.

Eaton says she started in pageants at the age of seven because she wanted a trophy. But the decision should be left up to the individual child, she says.

“When I have children, I won’t push them to get involved if it’s not what they want to do,” says Eaton, a junior who is majoring in broadcast journalism. “My mom never pushed me and she said she will support me whenever I want to stop.”